I will be running a group through Tomb of Horrors from the 5e adaptation in Tales from the Yawning Portal. For those who don't know, Tomb of Horrors is infamously sadistic. The book itself claims that much of the fun is had figuring out how to deal with the horrific things the dungeon will inflict upon you.

This adventure will be like a one-shot for our group, as a brief distraction from the more open-ended main campaign. We might play for more than one session in a row, but we're only playing Tomb of Horrors with these characters, and aren't really in it to get invested in an overarching story. The goal of the adventure for my players is to experience the dungeon in all of its horrific glory, character death included.

However, I'm wondering what I should do in the event that the group wipes out, especially early in the dungeon. If they get trapped in a hole in the ground and starve, it'll be great fun, but after that, I'm not sure how to proceed.

If everyone wants to keep playing, should I just say "Ok, let's start over from the beginning", and let them prod their way through the same traps? That could get dull, and reeks of metagame solutions. On the other hand, having them "reload" at an earlier point takes the sting out of the traps.

I'd appreciate it if someone who has ran a similar game could weigh in - how can I handle a TPK in a dungeon like this in a way that maintains the idea of a sadistic, unforgiving crawl? Will retrying in any capacity make the crawl less authentic feeling? I don't want 90% of the dungeon to go to waste, so I suppose that's why I'm leaning away from "one shot only".

As always, please cite your experience with your proposed solution.


1 Answer 1


First of all, Tomb of horrors is not particularly sadistic. As long as your players are used to their characters risking death, and have encountered traps before, and know what they are getting into, it is not that difficult to survive. Proceeding is occasionally frustrating.

Of course, if your players are used to challenges of suitable difficulty, guaranteed victories, and not having to use their wits, then the shift in play style might cause some difficulties. Also, the GM may face the same problem unless they are used to neutral refereeing.

I run a sandbox setting where some dungeons are difficult and many claimed lives of player characters. I keep it as a persistent world; if the players go to the same dungeon with different characters, they they are likely to find signs, and maybe corpses, of those characters. Things do change in the dungeon between adventures, of course. I allow players to use or ignore the metagame knowledge they have; ignoring metagame knowledge is socially encouraged, but not enforced.

In case of a one-shot and Tomb of horrors, I'd set up a plausible way to introduce multiple parties in the tomb. A large group of archaeologist-adventures have decided to plunder it, once for all, and they conveniently send in parties of around four people (however many players you have). In case of a TPK, the players then play the next party that enters the dungeon. Keep notes of what changes in the rooms and what loot the previous explorers left there.

You can ask players to create several characters, create low-level characters on the fly (see below), use pre-made characters, or create replacement characters by yourself. Experienced players could even create high-level characters on the fly, as long as they decide to not optimize or otherwise take too much time.

A friend has run the Tomb, old school way, with first level characters. There were deaths, but also great wealth was recovered. They did not defeat the demi-lich, obviously. This was not the D&D 5 conversion, which might have made the adventure less possible for low-level characters.

Doom cave of the crystal-headed children: Player characters went, messed around, eventually killed the wizard, and did not survive the consequences. The villagers sealed off the place. The next characters decided to do something else.

Keep on the Shadowfell: There have been several expeditions. Bodies tend to animate, the naturalish critters living there have grown large and dug more tunnels, and someone has released mad mummies into the dungeon, so it has been a dangerous place for quite some time. Several different parties have made expeditions there and most of the first level has been explored, but usually players prefer other dungeons. They may lose a character or almost all of them, others escape, and the next player character party often chooses to do something else.

In my experience, a living dungeon (and game world) that changes in response to player actions keeps things interesting. This also works with a single large or dangerous dungeon. I'll be running Maze of the blue medusa like this in next Ropecon, for example.


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